Credit: IFC Films
by Andrew Dignan Featured Film Horizon Line

BlackBerry — Matt Johnson

May 12, 2023

Inescapable during the ‘90s and ‘00s yet rendered near instantly obsolete by the iPhone and its assorted imitators, the BlackBerry smartphone feels less like a cautionary tale and more an example of business Darwinism in practice. The first commercially available mobile device to incorporate email and a cell phone, prominently featuring a static keyboard and a tactile clicking sound as uniquely identifiable as the roar of a Harley-Davidson, the BlackBerry was a business status symbol for the dawn of the new millennium. Limited initially by network bandwidth to only a few 100,000 users, the device anticipated a world where people obsessively glanced at their phones in public, but was targeted at the sort of executive and aspiring finance bros and gals who defined themselves by their necessity to be accessible at all times while the hoi polloi were still dialing up on AOL. And then, simply with the expressions “touchscreen” and “App Store” entering the public’s consciousness, the phone and the company that created it were all but swept into the dustbin of time without so much as an ironic reclamation.

Matt Johnson’s BlackBerry charts the meteoric rise and fall of the phone — from its inauspicious inception in the mid-’90s to its impotent whimper of a death rattle during the tail end of the second Bush administration — with a workmanlike modesty that reflects its proudly Canadian origins (the company’s collapse is even indirectly tied into a failed attempt at purchasing a professional hockey team). Taking inspiration — structurally, if not formally — from The Social Network, the film begins as the story of two longtime friends who stumble onto a world-changing invention, only to later be driven apart by outside influences and the cutthroat nature of business. Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Doug Fregin (Johnson, doing double duty in front of as well as behind the camera) are introduced stammering their way through a failed pitch with a commercial fabrication company, being barely humored by shark-like executive Jim Balsillie (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Glenn Howerton, his head shaved down into a severe chrome dome-and-sides look). It’s 1996, and simply saying you want to put email onto a phone is almost too forward-thinking to register with the average person, so Mike and Doug are dismissed back to their strip-mall workshop at Research in Motion; toiling away on an overleveraged government contract to manufacture modems in between playing first-person shooter games over LAN and company-wide movie nights. But after being fired for undercutting his colleagues, Jim turns his attention back to Research in Motion as a potential liferaft, strong-arming his way into a co-CEO role made possible by mortgaging his house to keep the company’s lights on.

Bristling at the inefficiencies and overriding the Pee Wee’s Playhouse-like nature of the business he just bought his way into, Jim begins setting meetings with potential buyers for a product that doesn’t even exist in prototype form yet, berating Mike into willing one into existence. It’s the classic conflict of principled engineering butting up against a “move fast and break things” corporate ethos, with Jim steamrolling Mike into falling in line while Doug (whose role within RiM is reduced by the film down to “Chief Fun Officer”) is increasingly sidelined. However, it doesn’t take long for cell phone carriers to recognize the upside in Mike’s vision, and faster than you can say “crackberry,” the phone has overtaken the market, with RiM relocating to a cavernous industrial space in Waterloo, Ontario. While Mike doggedly refuses to cut corners and clings to his geeky origins as long as possible — he celebrates the implementation of end-to-end encryption by texting the same message Alexander Graham Bell first spoke to Watson over the phone — Jim’s ceaseless ambition finds the company scaling faster than the nascent cellular network will support. That requires some legally dubious methods to hire away top talent from Google and Motorola to solve the problem, all while staving off a hostile takeover by PalmPilot.

BlackBerry arrives at an interesting moment in pop culture, sandwiched between films that valorize the people who brought us Air Jordans and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos as, apparently, this is just what movies for grown-ups are now. To its credit, nobody’s likely to mistake this film for an elaborate corporate marketing campaign disguised as cinema. Despite running afoul of the SEC and pushing Doug out of the business — the straw that seemingly broke the camel’s back is the company’s new, hard-nosed COO, played by the great Canadian character actor Michael Ironside, permanently canceling movie night — BlackBerry’s collapse can be attributed as much as anything to being caught flat-footed in the face of an industry-wide disruptor. By now, it’s 2007, and Mike, rocking a Keith Morrison-like silver hair helmet, obstinately clings to the keypad design and crows over cosmetic improvements like a built-in trackpad while, back in Cupertino, Apple was about to release a $600 phone that everyone and their mother would soon be clamoring over. The film makes the case that BlackBerry simply refused to innovate until it was too late, entombing itself in amber sometime in the early 2000s and assuming the industry would remain loyal because they made “the best phones on earth.” At a time when a fun night at the movies is increasingly spent applauding billionaires for their business acumen, there’s considerable space for schadenfreude in watching a bunch of suits implode a massive telecommunications company because they’ve convinced themselves that what the public really wanted was a cheaply constructed phone with a touchscreen that retains the click-clack sound of a keyboard when you tap it. 

Still, it all runs the risk of being a bit dry, particularly if one harbors little nostalgia for the era or antiquated technology. Johnson favors a jittery, handheld style, capturing moments of inspiration on the fly; it’s all designed to appear loose and almost accidental in nature — the eureka moment when Balsillie stumbles upon the distinctly fruity name of their new company is a particularly effective example of the plant and payoff — while tracking the passage of time by setting the film against a series of killer alt-rock needle drops. But really, the film’s not-so-secret weapon is Howerton. Retaining the pinched rage and arrogance of his Always Sunny character, Dennis Reynolds, Howerton’s Jim Balsillie serves as both the grown-up in the room and the impetuous toddler, throwing temper tantrums and smashing phones, all while coasting along on a slipstream of bullshit. BlackBerry is ultimately about the battle for Mike’s soul, caught between the success afforded by Jim’s lack of scruples and Doug’s connection to more humble origins, built around quality craftsmanship and shared values. All of which makes Johnson’s decision to portray Fregin as an off-brand Judah Friendlander-type — the kind of person who shows up to work for a decade with a headband tying back his mullet, wearing cut-off shorts, his mouth perpetually hanging derpily agape — so confounding. The character’s role within the narrative is inherently tragic (the Eduardo Saverin to Lazaridis’ Mark Zuckerberg, if you will), yet Johnson plays him like the sort of office dipshit who never seems to be doing any actual work, his presence within the company feeling almost ceremonial. Just because nobody wants to hear you prattle on about video games and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles while they’re trying to do their job doesn’t make it the fall of paradise.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 19.